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Planning for All-Year Colour

Diana Snape


What colours do we want in our gardens? It probably depends partly on where in Australia we live, than on our attitude to the natural environment, and finally on personal taste. We may want the colours in our garden to blend with those of the local landscape, or to contrast with them. This is a philosophical choice. I think many people have not yet adapted to the colour schemes of the Australian landscape, which are often different from the colours of European or other landscapes.

As an obvious example, many gardeners still crave bright green lawns, which may not look so out of place on the more humid coastal fringes of Australia, but provide a quite startling contrast in dry inland areas, or in times of drought. A vivid green lawn may detract from the softer grey-greens or blue-greens of many Australian trees and shrubs.

"In a garden which has rather more formality, using colour very deliberately can be fun."

In the past, most SGAP members have developed 'naturalistic' gardens, but there's no reason to reject the planned use of colour in any style of garden. In a garden which has rather more formality, using colour very deliberately can be fun.

So let's look at some examples of colour in gardens; a few are natural gardens, created by nature, unassisted; most have been developed by keen gardeners, working with nature.

Indigenous Plants

Gardens of indigenous plants use colours which belong to the local landscape. For example, in coastal gardens, foliage colours may inclucle the blue-grey of Atriplex sp. (Saltbush) and silver-grey of Leucophyta brownii (Cushion Bush). Here the background of sand or gravel is pale - cream, grey or fawn. Heathlands can display a variety of colours, often with repetition; in woodlands these are interspersed with patterns of trunks. Forest greens may contrast with the red of waratahs; wet or dry rainforests have a variety of colours in flowers and fruit. In natural alpine gardens a wide range of green occurs with washes of flower colour - white, yellow, mauve - mainly in summer. Tasmania's forest colours include the added splendour of Nothofagus gunnii (Deciduous Beech) in autumn.

The brilliant red flowers of the Waratah (Telopea speciosissima) are eye-catching against the dull green background on the New South Wales' central coast. Select the thumbnail image or plant name for a higher resolution image (32k).

Colour of the House

In our own gardens we may forget the colour of the house but it's certainly there all year round. As a permanent background it can contribute usefully to a colour scheme close to the house, or be a distraction. Neutral colours - fawns, greys, browns - may deliberately tone with plants, eg eucalypt leaves or banksia cones, and disappear into the landscape. White is eye-catching and particularly so with black. Brick colours such as orange and red are strong and stand out in combination with nearby colours.

Colour choice for a painted building is unlimited the choice may provide a colourful but sympathetic backgound, or two colours may match contrasting colours in eucalypt trunks.

Other Hard Materials

Other hard materials in the garden may aIso contribute significant areas of colour, which can be planned.

Similar comments as for walls of buildings apply to the vertical planes of fences and walls, except these can possibly be avoided altogether. They can be made inconspicuous or conspicuous, be a frame or a foil for plants. Sculpture and ornaments are 3-dimensional, usually with more emphasis on their vertical than horizontal dimensions. These are often meant to be eye-catching, depending on their colour as well as their form. They are not used very frequently in gardens of Australian plants but their potential for adding colour and character is great.

Horizontal Planes

Horizontal planes cannot be avoided. They intermingle with the garden, leading into it, blending with it, shaping spaces. Hard surfaces include paths and open areas - natural rocks such as sandstone or granite if you're lucky, stone or brick paving, timber, gravel or sand. Again, colour matters and should be considered: for example red scoria is a strong colour, reminiscent of the terracotta of some inland areas. For most of the day, especially in summer, light will shine more directly on these horizontal surfaces, so colours appear lighter than vertical surfaces. Possible groundcovers include numerous different. types of organic mulch, with natural colours which often change as they age.

"Water could be regarded as a unique category of 'groundcover'..... "

Living or 'green' groundcovers have a special appeal, including Autralian grasses, whose soft colours follow the seasons. There are many groundcover plants to chose from, of different scale and texture with a great variety of foliage and flower colours.

Water could be regarded as a unique category of 'groundcover' and an ever-changing element of subtle colour - shades of blue or green, grey, silver or dark - as it reflects and interacts with light. Water helps attract birds which add a delightful touch of colour to the garden.

Bark, Branches and Buds

Trunks, barks and branches of trees can introduce lines or patches of colour in addition to texture and definite forms. Eucalyptus sp. and Angophora sp. are celebrated for this, but another winner is Codonocarpos continifolius (Bell-fruit Tree) with its Pink trunk and branches. A pattern of dark or pale lines can highlight colours of flowers and foliage.

Some of the variation in the bark types of the eucalypts is shown by (clockwise from left top): Angophora bakeri, "Narrow-leaved Apple"; Corymbia maculata, "Spotted Gum"; Eucalyptus saligna, "Sydney Blue Gum"; Eucalyptus eugenioides, "Thin-leaved Stringybark". Select the thumbnail image or highlighted name for a higher resolution image (40k).

Buds, calyxes and fruit, for example eucalyptus buds and acacia seed pods, often contribute to the subtle colours of 'tapestries'. Others can be as conspicuous as those of Ceratopetalum gummiferum (NSW Christmas Bush).

Foliage Colours

For evergreen plants, foliage is there all year round and more planning could go into its use in the garden. Despite the comment "but there's no colour", we all know that green really is a colour. The beauty and serenity of a fern gully appeals to most people. But the range of foliage colours of Australian plants is large - all shades of green, some blue tones, silver-grey, even purple tints, rusts or lemon.

Leaf size influences the visual effect, and foliage colour can vary throughout the year. There are particularly lovely colours in the new or juvenile foliage of many rainforest plants as well as eucalypts, banksias, callistemons, hakeas and lots of smaller shrubs. lnteraction with light can give special effects and this can be anticipated when planting, illustrated by Acacia glaucoptera (Clay Wattle) foliage "front lit" or "back lit". After rain, light shining through water droplets on fine allocasuarina or Chamelaucium uncinatum (Geraldton Wax) foliage can produce tiny rainbows.

The colourful new growth of Syzygium leuhmannii (one of the "Lilly-Pillies") is an attractive feature of this well-known rainforest plant. Select the thumbnail image or plant name for a higher resolution image (22k).

Flower Colours

Last, but of course not least, there's the colour of flowers. In general, these appear softer than the obvious "loud" or "noisy" colours of exotic flowers which have such wide appeal. Some flowers of Australian plants are big, bold and bright, but colour effects are more often subtle.

Small flowers may be colourful close up and whole shrubs can be colourful too, but many appear as delicate washes of colour from a distance. Even in massed effects, the colours are often gentle and muted by foliage, especially when individual flowers are small. It;'s not necessary to be concerned about flower colour in the garden at all, but it is possible to have some all year round just with careful selection of either eucalypts or acacias alone. Daisies are wondeful for providing almost continuous colour. You need to plan ahead and even then variations do occur in recognised flowering times, depending on the locality, climate and each particular season. lt's worth checking local gardens and records. Many different colour combinations are possible in all the seasons, but especially in spring.

The "Wedding Bush" Ricinocarpos pinifolius produces brilliant white flowers which draw attention to an otherwise dark area of this garden. Photo: Barbara Henderson. Select the thumbnail image or plant name for a higher resolution image (54k).

If we are planning ahead for fiower colour, we should consider colour schemes for maximum effect. White is valuable in a hundred ways. Because it reflects light so well, it lifts a dark corner or acts as a foil for other colours. The visual effect of any colour varies according to its concentration or intensity and the size of its area - compare a linear white trunk, the massed flowering of a leptospermum and scattered small flowers of daisies or pratia. A colour wheel shows us pairs of complementary colours - those opposite each other in the wheel. Red is complementary to green, and red flowers are striking against a completely green background (with apologies to people who are red-green colour blind). Again we see a different balance between massed reds of Callistemons and daintier patches of red lechenaultias. Blues and purples of hardenbergias, prostantheras, patersonia or dampiera team well with virtually any other colour, but especially with shades of gold or yellow, their complementary colours.

"Artists each have their own individual palette of favourite colours and so can gardeners."

Blues and purples are lovely with pinks and mauves, colours which show up well against white or grey but are tricky against an orange or red brick house. Blues and purples are vibrant with crimson red. Yellow, orange and clear red are very cheerful together. Various shades of green are fine backgrounds for all colours. A combination of pale colours - pink, cream, white, lemon - is pretty, or you might prefer a mix of bright colours. Artists each have their own individual palette of favourite colours and so can gardeners.

I think designing (and then developing) a garden is probably the most challenging of all arts, one on which the Garden Design Study Group focuses. Using colour is one aspect of this challenge. With Australian plants I can guarantee there will be colour in our gardens all year round, even if it is not planned. If we do plan, we can use colour more consciously and effectively in whatever way we chose!


  1. The Encyclopaedia of Australian Plants (1980-) Rodger Elliot and David Jones (Lothian) and many reference books give relevant information about flowering colours and times, foliage and fruit colours, etc. so one can assemble one's own list of appropriate plant species for a particular niche.

  2. Grow What Where (1980) Australian Plant Study Group (Nelson) is a useful starting point for helping plan colour grouping or succession, at least in south-eastern Australia. It is now available as a computer program which works from DOS, an excellent aid for cross-referencing. I don't know whether any similar references have been produced in other States.

    Grow What Where includes the following among its numerous lists:

    • Long-flowering plants
    • Eucalypt flower calendar
    • Acacia flower calendar
    • Grevillea flower calendar
    • Summer-flowering plants
    • Autumn -flowering plants
    • Winter-flowering plants
    • White, blue, yellow, green, mauve, purple, orange and red flowers
    • Intense flower colours
    • Silver foliage
    • Variegated foliage
    • Darkly contrasting foliage
    • Berries

  3. The booklet 500 Australian Native PIants by SGAP Maroondah Group is a guide to flwering times and flower colour, size, habit and cultivation requirements. Based on observations made in Melbourne, it is a useful guide to flowering times for many areas of temperate Australia. Local variations can easily be annotated and more species added.

This article is a reproduction of a paper presented by Diana at the SGAP 18th Biennial Seminar held at Ballarat, Victoria from 23 to 29 September 1995. This was an illustrated lecture and reference is made to a number of slides which could not be reproduced here.

Diana has been a member of SGAP for 36 years. Since retiring in 1989 from teaching Chemistry, she has written for several gardening journals and the Melbourne "Age" newspaper. In 1990 Diana began to investigate the design of gardens using Australian plants, and the resulting book "Australian Native Gardens: putting visions into practice" was published in 1992. Diana is the leader of the Society's Garden Design Study Group.

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Australian Plants online - September 1996
The Society for Growing Australian Plants